I woke up a few minutes before 5am PST on Friday. I always look at my phone right away. I know it’s “not good for me,” but whatever. And, within seconds, I saw the news about Anthony Bourdain. I wasn’t surprised. Maybe I’m desensitized to the news, or the distance between real life and the characters we all play online. From his seminal book throughout his groundbreaking video work, he dropped little hint bombs of pain from many unhealed wounds of his past. This would come out as guilt, or nostalgia, or even disgust. In a way, his constitution reminded me a bit of Holden Caufield — he was trying to push us to see us the rest of the country & the world, but we kept sitting on our couch watching.
What has surprised me, however, is the continuous, organic, poetic, global, and piercing outpouring of love, sadness, grief, joy, and Bourdainian defiance that has been oozing into Twitter over the last 36 hours. I am honestly surprised at how deep his impact is. Perhaps his style tricked me, over the years, into thinking he was my friend — but he couldn’t be friends with, like, hundreds of millions of people, right?
What I’m realizing now, 36 hours into this sad news is that Bourdain was like the global version of a Hunter Thompson of food & travel exploration. When we drove our time and attention into social networks & our mobile phones, Bourdain went to the heart of America; when Americans grew to know less about the rest of the world, Bourdain took CNN & his crew into places like The Democratic Republic of Congo in an episode that packed more information about the history & culture of the place than an article in Foreign Affairs could; and even when some of us traveled overseas but stayed in central or nice places, Bourdain went a step further, searching for the heartland, for the authentic & everyday cooks worldwide.
I’ve been floored by all the personal stories that have emerged or resurfaced in his passing. So far, to me, the outpouring and stories dwarf what global figures & out-of-touch celebrities & politicians may have received. That’s because Bourdain only knows how to wield his chef’s knife with force & certainty, cutting right to the heart of it with his shows, guests, and in finding authentic dishes. It’s hard to pick a favorite among the many, but it feels hard to beat this story about Bourdain coming to the defense of a Midwestern food critic’s review of The Olive Garden which went viral. I’m learning now, obviously, Bourdain didn’t truly change my life (more on that below), he changed millions of peoples lives.
For me, I had been cooking for a few years before I picked up Kitchen Confidential. If Bourdain is a rock star, this book is the anthem. It started out like this — one of my roommates in college would cook to save money as everyone else would just eat out all the time. So, once he invited me to stay in and eat. It was good food. Then I watched how he prepared food. I always worked on campus throughout college, so I took a job with my friend at a catering company that served various houses and dining halls across Ann Arbor. Then I got a job making pasta and pizzas (and sangria) at a little place called Dominick’s, for those of you who know the University of Michigan. That gig at Dominick’s turned into a few more and, after reading Kitchen Confidential, I actually became a full-time cook in San Francisco.
At the time, I fully thought I would be a professional cook forever. I thought about getting trained at a real institution. I cooked many times a week. My roommates and close friends would cook with me all the time. Dinner parties. Staying in some weekend nights just to experiment. I read Bourdain’s book over and over again, alongside the more technical On Food & Cooking by Harold McGee. Think about that — I pursued a career as a cook because of Bourdain’s short book. That’s amazing. Ultimately, I decided that the lifestyle of being in the restaurant business wasn’t something I could commit to (it is really hard!), but the richness of those experiences where undoubtedly enhanced by having Bourdain’s wisdom whispering in my ear. In particular, his warnings about kitchen hierarchies and politics helped me navigate the details & nuance of working in close quarters with true professionals.
Ultimately, we followed Bourdain to Layover, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown. As life changed in the last decade for me, I went from tons of international travel monthly to the point where I haven’t personally left the country in almost a decade. That’s weird for me to write out, but it’s true. My life changed, I moved back to California, I tried to find my way here, we had our first kid, I started investing and the first two funds took off, we had more kids, and before you know it, even getting to the East Bay is a challenge, let alone going to Hanoi or Uruguay.
Perhaps that’s why I was so obsessed with Bourdain — search Twitter for my handle and his last name. I would tweet about him quite often. It was one of the only shows I would actually watch. For me, Bourdain took me to places I would dream of going to but will likely never get to. In a way, it was a vicarious experience, a sort of augmented & virtual reality experience of tricking my mind into thinking that Bourdain was my friend (and, as MG points out, a fellow writer), that he was guiding me in my career, and was showing me raw parts of the world I needed to pay attention to, if even from my couch.
And, what I loved *the most* about Bourdain was his pure irreverence. He was an expert cook and expert observer and didn’t waste a second in witful retort. He knew how to use ingredients and language. He was the real deal, and he could spot anyone else who was the real deal. He wasn’t easily fooled. He was probably difficult to deal with on a day-to-day basis, but he was probably often right, too. On a personal level, of course, I am heartbroken for his family & friends & crew — and especially his close friend Eric (I truly loved how Bourdain would joyfully torture Ripert), but I am confident Bourdain’s body of work will live on for hundreds of years. He started out as a cook, but that was just his wedge into becoming the world’s best travel writer and documentarian. His dishes will live on forever.